Friday, August 5, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The news about intense solar flares scheduled to hit the earth today and the potential disruption of electronics reminded me of one of my favorite movies. The original 1951 version of  The Day the Earth Stood Still begins with a flying saucer landing in Washington DC. Klaatu, a representative of the intergalactic peacekeeping force, delivers a warning to the people of earth to cease all conflict and avoid the inevitable destruction of the planet which is apparently going to bring down property values all over the galaxy. Klaatu tries at first to assemble world leaders but meets with little success. He then seeks audience with a well known leader of the scientific community in the hopes of convincing them to somehow change the course of history. To convince the people of earth they are up against a superior force, Klaatu had scheduled what he characterized as a small demonstration of their abilities. At precisely noon, electricity around the globe simple stops working. Cars won't start, trains won't run, elevators stop and lights go out everywhere. The human race is stunned, and, presumably convinced to pay attention. Contrary to the old axiom, don't shoot the messenger, Klaatu is cornered and shot dead. But his body is recovered by Gort, one of a race of giant robots built to keep the peace. He is restored to life long enough to bid farewell and sail of into the stratosphere, leaving the people of earth to settle their differences or else.

What would happen if electricity did suddenly stop working? Maybe we don't have to worry about flying saucers and alien controlling us. Solar flares have occurred before with limited impact.

But we do have to worry about the very real threat of cyber-terrorism and the possibility that one day it will result in more than just the theft of information.  Last year Stuxnet appeared on the scene and is the first known example of a cyber attack resulting in real world damage.  This highly advanced malware (software created for hidden and often devious or even dangerous purposes) sought out and took control over uranium enriching centrifuges in Iran, ultimately causing them to irreparably damage themselves. You can watch this video to see what it looks like when a generator is driven to self destruction by software control.

How long before critical infrastructure such as the telecommunications network or power grid are targeted and successfully compromised? Every day we see another news story about a major security breach. No person, company, government or country is immune. Even our  most secure government agencies have been successfully compromised. This report by Kathleen Hickey lists the targets of one so-called hacktivist group called LulzSec. They include Sony, Nintendo, PBS, the U.S. Senate, the CIA and several foreign governments.

Are we adequately prepared to defend against, deal with or recover from such an attack? The power grid struggles today to keep up with ever increasing demand. Communications capacity is already stretched by internet traffic, streaming video and the support of mobile users. Without power or communications commerce, indeed the nation, will come to a grinding halt. Our daily lives will be dramatically altered. Depending on the nature and extent of the damage, it could take months or years to repair.

Maybe an intergalactic intervention is what we need. Klaatu, are you out there?

Captain Joe

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